Whatever happened to the Great American Dream? In films, a sleepy western town was saved by a powerful leader who rode in with his gang, told them he would improve their lot and, although most of town did not want this intervention, they accepted it and everyone lived happily ever after. However, four years later, the town woke up and told the gang to leave. In case you had not noticed, it was Trump and his Republicans who rode into town.
The Trump era is ending but there are two questions that need a coordinated answer. How did Trump succeed in being elected in 2016? And what motivated approximately 70 million Americans to vote for Trump then and thereafter? Their concerns and motivations cannot be ignored. As John Hibbing reported in his 2020 book, The Securitarian Personality
, three years after the election, 29% of Americans believed (either 'agreed' or 'strongly agreed') that Trump was one of the very best Presidents in the entire history of their country.
Trump succeeded in attracting and retaining supporters by offering solutions for their needs and wishes to improve the benefits and opportunities of their lot. Trump, a salesman, definitively and divisively exaggerated the differences between the two major American parties that constituted his insiders and outsiders, who were good and bad people (dis) respectfully. Trump supporters disagreed with 'the weaker' who endorsed gun control, promoted defence cuts, advocated criminal rights, promoted free healthcare (that would reduce the best to average), encouraged foreign aid, and who supported the Black Lives Matter movement.
Trump supporters, mostly Republicans, distrusted outsiders including their fellow Americans. Logically, Trump and his supporters needed to be vigilant against perceived threats from outsiders and it follows that they had to be on the lookout for conspiracies. Any insiders who fraternised with outsiders were particularly suspect – John McCain's cordial relationship with Obama almost certainly did the former harm.
Trump supporters were happy for 'things to be shaken up' if this were to enhance their security. Trump promised this. Never mind that the change was back to Good Old Days mythology when America was apparently Great then apparently not Great and needed to be made Great Again.
What Trump failed to realise was that he had fallen for his own sales pitch and persuaded himself that his beliefs and self-belief were reality. There are four aspects to this Trump delusion syndrome. Firstly, the Peter Principle, by which people get promoted until they become incompetent, but Trump self-promoted until he had become incompetent. Secondly, the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which an incompetent's incompetence made them unable to recognise their incompetence. Thirdly, people who have areas of irrationality do not recognise these areas. Fourthly, ignorance (in Trump's case a notable ignorance of science) protected him from the implications contained in his areas of ignorance. In particular about Covid: 'It's going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle, it will disappear'.
Scott Adams (the deservedly famous creator of Dilbert
) was one of few commentators to predict a Trump win. His 2017 book, Win Bigly
, laid out the attributes that enabled Trump to succeed. Trump was a 'master persuader' who had an innate ability to address his supporters' needs and aspirations. Trump's ability to inveigle supporters to believe his documented 'incorrect statements' (I am trying hard not to make use of the term lies) is remarkable. Trump had made at least 20,000 incorrect statements according to the Washington Post,
including his infamous and unforgivable incorrect Covid statement that explains his initial failure to even address the problem which probably contributed to the loss of the 2020 election after over a quarter of a million deaths. Even such outrageous incorrect statements were soon displaced, overwhelmed, and forgotten by a continual stream of major and minor incorrect statements.
Trump used popularism, a belief that people should be given what they want, or in his case, what they were told they wanted. Trump told his people what they wanted, and because this equates with the interests of the State, there is a natural slippery slope towards fascism. In addition, many populist leaders are not adept at managing the often-contradictory demands of the people. Trump's unequivocal attitudes convinced many that he was on their side despite, or perhaps because of, his brash and cavalier approach to realities. Sadly, Trump's confidence and competence did not coincide. Presumably, either his supporters regarded incorrect statements as bullshitting or must have thought: 'Beneath all the inconsistencies, Trump believes what we believe'.
General elections are the most important surveys of public opinion and ideally should reflect judgement of the overall package on offer, not of any one specific issue, and certainly not oversimplifications of complex wishes like 'Make America Great Again'. It is predictable that no election will provide a result that everyone will accept, and democracy may be at risk unless the runners-up accept the result. If the runner-up leader lacks the maturity to accept democracy then you will get, well, what Trump is exhibiting.
What is needed is a leader or leaders that can progress the wishes of most of the people by agreeing common aims and tolerating differences, rather than making the differences divisive. The Trump-led Republicans automatic attempts to block Obama's 'Socialist Health care initiatives' were but one example of institutionalised divisiveness.
There have been two major gamechangers. One is the unprecedented dissemination of uncensored and often malicious material on the internet with personalised feedback that reinforces whatever beliefs or tendencies you may reveal by your postings and purchases. It is amusing if 1% of the population in isolation think that vaccines are a bad thing, but if they find each other that 1% may constitute a threat to 99%. And another, although superficially trivial, is that the tolerance of split infinitives has deceived us that the way
in which things are done is more important than what
What can be done to present a Trump-like relapse? Think of one political, religious, or personal belief you hold. How do you react when I tell you that I know it is rubbish, a non-scientific delusion? I expect that my opinion instinctively reinforced your belief. So such simple confrontational approaches will not work, especially when divisions in society, rather than common interests, are exploited. How can Trump supporters – 'Many fine people' – be assisted to realise that he was ill-equipped to be President. What generalities can we all agree on before getting lost in specifics?
First, we should all attempt to avoid insider groupthink by resisting the emotional appeal of unanimity and resist its conformity pressure. It is a sign of maturity, not weakness, to fraternise with outsiders.
Second, we should try to understand the viewpoints of others, particularly of perceived outgroups.
Third, we should encourage free media because free speech is essential for robust democracies. We should not attempt to suppress speech with which we disagree. We should enter the debate. Alternative facts are everywhere. There can be no alternative facts, only different beliefs. Sadly, the importance of facts is secondary to how you feel about them.
Fourth, we should make critical and self-critical evaluations and welcome outsider critiques.
And fifth, underlying all of these is the need to distrust beliefs. Beliefs are, by definition, not based on verifiable facts and are hardly ever based on a comprehensive assessment of evidence. Whether they are true or not is irrelevant. You have a belief? It can be reinforced by several mouse clicks and, hey presto, confirmation bias rapidly clicks in. Be thoughtful, particularly about those who claim God is on their side. God is always on your side. Resist single-minded focusing such as were exhibited by Christian evangelicals who were so focused on abortion that they were able to side-line everything else that Trump personified. That Bible-waving Trump claimed to be anti-abortion does not mean you have to buy into his whole package.
We all have to live together: Catholics with Protestants, Sunni with Shia, Republicans with Democrats, Jews with Muslims, them with us. The alternative is mass slaughter which, to judge by the historical record, seemingly needs to be repeated from time to time.
To be fair, Trump has provided some benefits. We now know it is acceptable for a President to play golf whilst a pandemic is raging despite his 2016: 'I'm going to be working for you. I'm not going to have time to go to play golf'. It is acceptable to criticise war heroes who did not have the good fortune to have a draft-avoiding bony spur in their foot. We now know that Trump was able to achieve disproportionate levels of publicity. Evidence? Trump has been mentioned 33 times in this article. Now try and remember what my name was.
Philip D Welsby was a Consultant in Infectious Diseases in Edinburgh. He writes extensively on medical and other matters and, as a consequence, is driven to distraction by requests from predatory journals (journals that charge the author for publication) almost invariably dealing with subjects about which he knows little